Dylan Alcott says he missed childhood friends. With Support, Disabled Children Have Better Social Opportunities Today – The Conversation | Wonder Mind Kids

At a press conference last week, Paralympian Dylan Alcott recalled the pain of being a child with a disability.

“I didn’t have any friends when I was five,” the Australian of the Year told reporters. “I even got goose bumps.”

He said one of the positive aspects of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is that it has helped today’s young children make almost twice as many friendships. But how?

School is a crucial place to think about friendship for children with disabilities because, as research confirms, it is a place where all children learn to make and maintain friendships. Some studies suggest that schooling plays an even more important social role for students with disabilities than it does for normally developing children – with non-disabled students setting an example of appropriate behavior.

Friendships are important for children with disabilities – without them, children do not thrive in school, feel lonely and isolated. So how can we help some of our most vulnerable students make and maintain them?

Read more: Everyone is talking about NDIS – we spoke to participants and asked them how they can fix the problem

disability and social isolation

Alcott’s comments reflect what experts know about disability and social bonds. A study of English adults published last year shows: “Compared to the general population, people with disabilities have fewer friends, less social support and are more socially isolated”.

According to several studies, the quality of friendships is lower for many young people with disabilities compared to young people without disabilities. (The quality of friendship is measured by criteria including status as a peer, the variety of activities enjoyed together, and those activities being spontaneous rather than prearranged or programmed group events.) This reduces the quality of life.

Negative social attitudes towards disability reinforce this social disadvantage in schools and in our communities.

Although small strides have been made in Australia to address these ingrained attitudes in the school system, they still persist, as demonstrated at the Disability Royal Commission’s public hearing on education in 2020.

At the 2020 hearing, students with disabilities reported losing access to friendships and learning when expelled from school and sitting at home. Once locked out, students have even fewer opportunities for social interactions and friendships.

“I would have liked to have had the NDIS,” Alcott told reporters.
AAP picture/Lukas Coch

Friendship is about access

My own research shows how students with disabilities are grossly overrepresented among the children who typically drop out or are suspended because of their behavior – and what could be done to address this issue.

A more subtle problem is the lackluster or symbolic application of educational integration strategies. Well-meaning policies applied without considering a child’s social needs mean a child could be? physically present in the classroom of a regular school but without class friendships or experience of the broader social life of the school.

Advocates point out that true inclusion is about children’s access to friendships and social opportunities with and without disabilities? may not have been considered or encountered something else.

And decades of international research have found that strong friendships mean young people are less likely to develop aggressive behavior or mental illness. This finding is particularly important for children and adolescents with a disability, who may be at increased risk of severe psychological distress.

Read more: Mental stress is much worse for people with disabilities, and many healthcare professionals don’t know how to help

Creating moments, addressing problems

The finding that NDIS participation fosters friendships shows that with sufficient support and adequate funding, social success is achievable.

Parents, teachers, school leaders, and concerned community members can also help. Parents play a key role in developing friendships between children by providing opportunities for children with and without disabilities to bond in groups or individually.

Two children with animal masks
The quality of friendship is measured in part by the variety of activities children engage in together.
Pexel, CC BY

Adults can point to segregation, discrimination and cultures of low expectations lurking in school systems.

Children with disabilities can be enabled to participate in all aspects of broader social school life that interest them. Non-disabled students may have negative biases toward children with disabilities, which can prevent relationships. Resources like ABC’s You Can’t Ask That book can be used in schools to help combat stereotyping.

Students with disabilities are often subject to bullying. Effective school-wide anti-bullying programs are essential to help them maintain positive relationships. The government’s Bullying No Way program is a good example.

Friendships can present unique challenges for children with autism, but providing explicit instruction about social rules among the neurotypical can be helpful. There are research-based specialist programs. Foster groups can provide children with targeted support to build and maintain relationships.

The benefits of friendships and strong social inclusion for children and young people with disabilities are compelling. As a society, we should do everything we can to prevent some of the most vulnerable in our communities from falling into lonely and isolated lives.

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